Tanking PPP support in Seoul area ahead of election spurs Yoon to action on hot-button issues

Posted on : 2024-03-21 17:22 KST Modified on : 2024-03-21 17:22 KST
Polls showed sagging support for the PPP in Seoul and surrounding areas, prompting fears of a ruling party election blowout in the greater capital area
President Yoon Suk-yeol (left) and People Power Party interim leader Han Dong-hoon (right) survey damage to a market in Seocheon County, South Chungcheong Province, on Jan. 23, 2024, following a fire there. (Yonhap)
President Yoon Suk-yeol (left) and People Power Party interim leader Han Dong-hoon (right) survey damage to a market in Seocheon County, South Chungcheong Province, on Jan. 23, 2024, following a fire there. (Yonhap)

President Yoon Suk-yeol’s decision on Wednesday to accept the resignation of Hwang Sang-moo, his senior secretary for the civil and social agenda, and to have Lee Jong-sup, the ambassador to Australia, return to Korea at an early date appears to reflect Yoon’s awareness that a disaster for the ruling party in the soon-to-be-held general elections on April 10 would also be a disaster for him.

With public opinion turning against the ruling People Power Party (PPP) in the greater Seoul area, Yoon moved to close a rift that had opened up between his administration and the PPP in regard to what should be done with Hwang and Lee. Members of the PPP expressed relief at the measures, noting that they were better late than never. But some party members think Lee should also resign from his post as ambassador.

Yoon decided Wednesday to accept the resignation of Hwang after he made a disturbing reference to the knifing of a journalist who had criticized the government in 1988. Yoon’s decision came four days after PPP interim leader Han Dong-hoon called for Hwang’s resignation on Sunday.

Lee is currently being investigated by the Corruption Investigation Office for High-ranking Officials (CIO) on charges of meddling in an investigation into the death of a marine lance corporal surnamed Chae. With Lee scheduled to return to Korea before the general elections, ostensibly to join other senior diplomats for a meeting related to cooperation with the defense industry on March 25, Yoon has effectively accepted both of Han’s requests.

The presidential office had initially demurred to Han’s requests, objecting that they touched on the president’s authority over appointments. The office had maintained that it would be inappropriate for Lee to return to Korea before he received a summons from the CIO and rejected the idea of Hwang resigning while noting that “respecting the freedom of the press is our governing philosophy.”

But as polls showed sagging support for the PPP in Seoul and surrounding areas, party members became afraid of an election blowout in the greater capital area. In the end, Yoon appears to have concluded he had no option but to agree to Han’s requests.

Notably, a poll by Gallup Korea for the second week of March that was conducted on March 12-14 — after Lee headed to Australia on March 10 — found that the PPP’s support had dropped to 30% in Seoul, or 15 points lower than the previous poll (on March 5-7). In contrast, the Democratic Party’s approval rating in Seoul rose 8 points (24% to 32%) over the same period.

In Incheon and Gyeonggi Province, the People Power Party was trailing the Democratic Party by 6-7 points in the first two weeks of March. (More details are available on the website of the National Election Survey Deliberation Commission, in Korean.)

A source in the presidential office said that the president’s decision seems aimed at “serving the greater good.”

A source with the PPP said, “Lee Jong-sup and Hwang Sang-moo are being handled in keeping with public opinion as the clock runs out on the general elections.”

Han Dong-hoon was on the street greeting voters in Anyang, Gyeonggi Province, on Wednesday when he heard that Lee would be returning to Korea and that Hwang’s resignation had been accepted.

“As of today, everything has been fixed. The PPP and the Yoon administration are in the same boat,” Han said while calling on voters to support his party.

“We are a party that strives to accept the will of the people, while the Democratic Party is a party that rejects the will of the people instead. This situation brings that difference into focus,” Han added, intensifying his attack on his political rivals.

Nevertheless, the embers of conflict are still smoldering. PPP candidates in the greater Seoul area said Wednesday that it wasn’t enough for Lee to return to Korea. Instead, they argued, he should either resign or his appointment be revoked.

“It’s unfortunate, but [Lee] needs to tender his resignation before he returns for the sake of the country,” said Kim Hack-yong, a four-term lawmaker representing Anseong, Gyeonggi Province, during a radio spot on CBS.

Other PPP candidates in the greater Seoul area said that Lee returning to the country was a good move, but that he needed to take the next step of resigning given the public mood before the election.

“If what the people expect is resignation or dismissal, we ought to follow their lead,” one candidate remarked.

By Lee Seung-jun, staff reporter; Bae Ji-hyun, staff reporter; Shin Min-jung, staff reporter

Please direct questions or comments to [english@hani.co.kr]

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